Before I get too bogged down, I have to congratulate Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for an unbelievable display of heart during one of the greatest matches and major finals of all time. Even nearing the six hour mark, the two played breathtaking tennis from start to finish, in fact they probably played even better at the end.
And while all those records are great, the Nadal-Djokovic match-up is becoming supremely interesting from a tactical and strategic standpoint. From the very beginning, you could tell the two were playing a chess match. Nadal came out with a new strategy to disrupt the wrecking machine that Djokovic has become and it paid dividends throughout the first set and particularly towards the end of the match, as well. One of the most significant things Nadal came out with was the body serve. First of all, I never understood why more players don’t do this. It’s unbelievably effective because it is almost always going to be difficult to return and since no one ever hits it, it’s always going to come as a surprise. When you consider that Djokovic is the best returner in the game (and possibly of all time) and you see how he struggled to get that serve back in play, I really hope more players employ this tactic in the future. Not just against Djokovic but in general.
Another shot Nadal employed was the down-the-line backhand. While not as much of a killer shot the way Djokovic’s is, this shot proved to be extremely useful for Nadal when he needed to open the court and blast a forehand winner. I felt that Nadal changed directions on both strokes extremely well throughout the match and that was something we never really saw him do well last year. The ability to change directions easily is a huge part of Djokovic’s success throughout his career and while Nadal doesn’t do it quite as well, he showed great improvement last night. This was especially evident in the fourth set when Nadal was facing triple break point. It can be said that Djokovic wasted some ample opportunities to win the fourth set, but I don’t consider this one of them. Nadal simply played five unbelievable points, one of which included a backhand down-the-line winner.
Despite executing some new tactics to great effect, Nadal still lost the match. One of the reasons for this is because of his inability to execute his game plan during the second and third sets. The first and fourth sets showed a different dynamic in the match up. But the middle two sets were extremely familiar. Nadal played too defensively and Djokovic plowed right through him. Of course this had a lot to do with Djokovic, as well. Nadal was hitting his forehand unbelievably well throughout the match and it seemed like Djokovic played into it too often in the first set. By the middle of the fourth, Nadal didn’t even look like he had a forehand. Djokovic kept him pinned to the backhand corner and it paid off. It was also interesting to note how much Nadal was slicing. I think he may have taken this play from Andy Murray and Roger Federer who have great success against Djokovic with the slice, but Nadal’s slice sits up too much and I was surprised that he resorted to it so often. Especially because he was hitting his backhand extremely well, better than he has since probably the 2010 US Open.
After over four and a half hours of play when the two were entering the fifth set, it seemed like they were at a stale mate. Neither player brought anything new into the fifth set, as there was nothing new to bring. It became a battle of the heart and fitness, and what a fantastic battle it was. Djokovic looked out of gas for the first half of the set until Nadal blinked serving 4-2 30-15 by missing an easy backhand pass. Djokovic got his 16th wind and eventually grinded Nadal down before closing it out.
In his post match presser, Nadal said, “ I didn’t have mental problems today against him. I had in 2011 all these mental problems. Today I didn’t have. I compete with normal conditions against him, no?”
Maybe not to the extent of last year, but I don’t fully agree with Nadal on this one. Against anyone else, he makes that backhand. Against anyone else, he doesn’t fall to his knees after winning the fourth set. This one meant a lot to Nadal and he showed it. But somehow Djokovic thwarted him again. And while Nadal certainly has to be proud of how he fought, there is still the issue that Djokovic could have won the match sooner. It seemed like Nadal was well on his way to the title in that fifth set but I think Nadal still played hopeful tennis, as in, he was hoping to win rather than believing he could actually do it.
I don’t expect Nadal to go away, but one has to wonder if he’ll ever even get to a match point against the Serb again.
One final thought, Nadal has reached four straight major finals, regardless of the last three losses, this is an unbelievable accomplishment. And there’s good reason to believe he’ll be in his fifth final in a few months. As for Djokovic, well, it looks like he’s as unbeatable as ever, if not more so.
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